For many new moms, deciding to breastfeed is the easy part. The rest of it, however, is much more challenging. As any parent can tell you, even the best laid plans don't always work out in a reality filled with barriers to breastfeeding. That doesn't mean a little prior planning hurts, though. So, when should a baby stop breastfeeding? While this decision is entirely up to the lactating parent, experts have a few suggestions.
The simple answer is, of course, that you should stop breastfeeding when it no longer works well for you and/or your baby. Making these choices in real life is a bit more complex, though, and it can be hard when you are under pressure to do things the "right" way. Organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend exclusive breastfeeding for about six months. The AAP also recommends mom continue to breastfeeding past six months, and along with complementary solid foods, until 12 months or beyond. The same site acknowledges that most American moms stop breastfeeding well before the 12-month mark, citing a whole host of barriers, including returning to work, cultural norms, supply issues, and simply wanting to stop (which is totally valid, by the way).
There's also your baby's health to consider. As Dr. Christie del Castillo-Hegyi, co-founder of the Fed is Best Foundation, tells Romper via email, if your baby isn't thriving on breast milk or isn't gaining weight you need to get help. The decision to combo-feed or switch to formula, for example, might end up benefitting your child more than sticking to breastfeeding. Your health also matters in this equation. As Dr. Marlene Freeman, Director of Clinical Services for Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Women’s Mental Health, told Postpartum Progress, if you hate breastfeeding and it's making your life unbearable, continuing to breastfeed may not be good for your mental health.
While the AAP recommends continuing breastfeeding for at least 12 months, most moms in the U.S. stop long before meeting that goal. As the only industrialized country in the world without mandatory paid family leave, it's no wonder. As HuffPost reports, 25 percent of new moms return to work a mere two weeks after delivery, and many more return before they are ready — cobbling together a combination of unpaid leave, sick leave, disability, and vacation time so they can stay home.
And once you return to work, pumping breast milk to maintain your supply and provide milk for your baby during your work day isn't easy. As Harper's Bazaar reports, the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) included protections related to pumping at work for breastfeeding moms. But the ACA only mandates that employers provide unpaid pumping breaks for hourly employees in a private space that's not a bathroom. Those employers fall short of that mandate, too, with 60 percent of working moms, and 86 percent of Black and Hispanic working moms, reporting that they don't have breaks or a place to pump at work.
For other moms, the decision to stop breastfeeding is a matter of mental health. As Freeman writes for Postpartum Progress, a breastfeeding mom struggling with perinatal mood disorder, like postpartum depression (PPD) or anxiety, needs to weigh her desire to breastfeed against her need for treatment:
"The mother’s wellness is more important than feeding method. Decades of research demonstrate the negative consequences of maternal depression for the mother and baby. It is absolutely true that breastfeeding has great nutritional value, but it is not more important than the mother’s health and ability to bond with her baby and function."
A mom shouldn't feel pressured to continue breastfeeding if she wants to stop breastfeeding, according to del Castillo-Hegyi. "Moms may find themselves in a situation where the hours spent maintaining her supply by nursing, pumping and supplementing begins to take a toll on her ability to care for herself, her baby, and her family," she tells Romper. "If breastfeeding results in sleep deprivation, postpartum depression, or uncorrectable and intolerable breastfeeding pain that may be a sign that the breastfeeding relationship is detrimental to the mom and secondarily, the baby."
There are also situations where continuing to breastfeed might also no longer be good for your baby. "If a baby is developing failure to thrive, becoming malnourished, breastfeeding all day and gaining minimal weight that is a sign that the breastfeeding relationship needs re-evaluation and possibly a change, based on the mother’s unique circumstances," del Castillo-Hegyi tells Romper.
In the end, the decision to wean your baby is personal, and impacted by a virtually endless number of factors. No one deserves to feel guilt or shame about continuing to breastfeed as long as it's working for their family, or deciding to stop breastfeeding if it's no longer working for them or their baby. "The infant feeding pendulum has swung too far and mothers are being pressured to persist in breastfeeding even when it is not working for mom or baby," del Castillo-Hegyi says. "That is not best for moms or babies. We are lucky to live in a time where there are healthy choices that allow all babies to reach their full potential and allow the entire family to thrive. That should not be shamed; that should be celebrated."